Esoteric Twaddle? Yes, Please

Those new to the tarot, and especially those who are younger (but then almost everyone involved is younger than me these days) rejoice when told by their mentors that they don’t have to learn all of that arcane stuff in tarot books, just “go with what you feel” and ignore any methodical, structured approach to the cards. To the extent that one is a competent  psychic, this advice causes no harm. But it isn’t strictly “reading the cards,” it’s tapping directly into the source of the wisdom that the cards channel, call it what you will: the Collective Unconscious, the Akashic Record, the Astra Plane, the Mind of God, Plato’s “Soul of the World,” etc. In my opinion, it’s also what makes long-distance readings via phone or internet “work,” and in such cases the cards serve mainly as a convenient prop. For most people, reading the cards with insight and precision is an acquired discipline, not necessarily a natural gift. A rich storehouse of observation and experience resides in the literature, both modern and historical, and newcomers do themselves a serious disservice by categorically rejecting it in favor of a purely imaginative style of interpretation based solely on the visual presentation. The latter can be great fun, but it may be entirely divorced from the baseline knowledge encoded in the system, which in fact may not be well-served by the images. Every card contains layers of meaning that manifest at different levels of awareness (practical, psychological, philosophical, spiritual), and lacking some form of roadmap could mean that many of the less obvious forks in the road could be missed, with one’s approach to reading being the poorer for it.

The main advantage in tackling the more difficult of the esoteric tomes, notably (but certainly not limited to) Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s Liber T, is that it trains the mind to look beneath the surface of the conventional viewpoint (by which I mean the folkloric accretions that have grown up around the Waite-Smith tarot deck) and consider alternative vistas. A number of modern writers have endeavored to aid the neophyte by rendering  this often indigestible mass of information into plain language; the best of them succeed at transforming the occult jargon into accessible terms while the worst simply denature it. When I started out, I went right in at the deep end with The Book of Thoth (admittedly after gaining some vital background in the Hermetic Qabala) and, if a developing novice has an insatiable curiosity and urge to grow, my advice is still to grit your teeth, tighten your seatbelt, strap on your metaphysical hard-hat and dive straight into the original material. The best way to learn to do something is often to “just do it” to the best of your ability; it’s known as “bootstrapping,” and the literature can provide handholds by which to haul yourself up. Much of it will remain elusive for years and some of it – especially Crowley’s more complex ruminations – may never make much sense even after repeated readings. The good news is that hitting the high points will generally suffice to bring a new depth of understanding to one’s appreciation of the cards, and the rest can be filed as “food for thought” to be pulled out periodically and gnawed away at.

The bulk of the published esoteric foundation that causes such heartburn for proponents of a free-form, open-ended, largely intuitive style of reading revolves around what are known as correspondences. Occult thinkers of the 19th Century imbued the tarot with a vast range of augmented meanings drawn mostly from Greek, Arabic and Hebrew philosophical and religious sources: elemental, astrological, numerological, qabalistic, alchemical and magical, to name a few. The important point to keep in mind is that all of these ramifications are truly auxiliary and not essential to effective use of the cards for divination. That said, applying them with skill and restraint can enliven a reading with multi-dimensional insights that bring nuance and color to the narrative. I summon them when I’m reaching for just a bit more detail than offered by the usual interpretation. An on-line colleague coined the phrase “narrative triggers,” which is flexible enough to describe all manner of memory-jogging devices, including correspondences, metaphors, analogies and other story-telling shortcuts. Absorbing them will definitely stretch the mind and could even bend it a little in creative ways, leaving an indelible stamp on one’s personal reading style.

4 thoughts on “Esoteric Twaddle? Yes, Please

  1. Great article. This is a topic that gets brought up a lot and your take on it is very interesting.
    I can understand people who are new to Tarot being attracted to the “intuitive” approach. They probably picked up the cards in the first place to scratch an occult-y itch and it’s not a bad way to start. Also, there is some frustration experienced when one is completely new to the tarot in trying to “learn the card meanings.” 78 cards is a lot of information when you are starting from zero knowledge.

    But I think any person with a modicum of intelligence and curiosity will soon grow bored of winging it and will begin to suspect that there has to be more to this discipline, this craft, than just letting their imagination run wild. At this point they will seek out blogs and forums, learn about books they could read and slowly the world will open up to them.

    Some people will never use the Tarot for anything other than to try and figure out what their boyfriend is thinking. And there is nothing wrong with that. Give two people a kitchen to work in and one will make a lobster bisque and the other will heat up a can of spaghettios. To each his own. But at some point spaghettios-guy will crack open a cook book and see if he can expand his horizons.

    Tarot books, like Crowley’s especially, can discourage people. It did me. Not everyone can grit their teeth and plow through it. This can often lead a person to think, “the hell with books, I am an intuitive reader.” And often they seek out advice on blogs and forums, looking for affirmation of this. And often, as you said, they get it. But usually I see these affirmations coupled with some recommendations for books and blogs that might appeal, when the person is ready. They are still encouraged to develop their skills and knowledge.

    I like to tell people that if they have been disappointed or discouraged by books, to try another book. Eventually you will find the ones that speak to you. Eventually you can build yourself up to a point where maybe you can take on the Book of Thoth, maybe you never will, but everyone can develop themselves to best of their abilities and enjoy and use the tarot as an important and useful part of their lives.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well said. Tarot is a neverending study, always more to be found and deeper to dig. And I love that!
      There is some great information to be found online, in blogs, articles, newsletters,… and some fantastic books that are easy to read for novices and experienced Readers alike. So even if the heavy stuff is not for you, you can find the same information pre-stirred, stripped-down and easier to digest. Preferring to read it like that does not make you a worse Reader! Tarot is not elitist like that. And in the end you choose what feels right for you, what works. It’s your mind in control afteral. But I DO genuinely feel that SOME amount of background knowledge and effort is needed if you want to feel confident of your grasp – hell, even those of us who have never stopped learning and practising in decades sometimes get twinges of Imposter-syndrome urging them to do some research… or is that just me?

      Liked by 1 person

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